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To Hellfair and Back: No holiday cheer behind prison walls

By Shane Sims

Darkness is the absence of light.

Although I am sure that this age-old truth was discussed at some point during my secondary education, it wasn’t until I read it while in prison that the deeper implications really became clear to me; and it shifted something in the depths of my soul. Darkness is not something imposed upon us; rather, darkness is the result of something being taken away.

I remember laying the book down, and just staring at one of the walls of my cell. At that moment, I wasn’t sure why this epiphany weighed so heavily upon my heart. However, in time, that, too, became clear. Although prison dorms are well lit - there is always some form of light - I could almost see an engulfing darkness. It wasn’t until I read the statement that I realized what it was: prison hadn’t just deprived us of our physical freedom, it had also snatched the light of hope from our souls. The darkness that I could almost see was as real as the artificial light that disguised it. The dorm was a chamber of despair. And at no time was this clearer to me than during the holidays, especially during the weeks following Christmas.

The Monday after Thanksgiving always marked a shift in the atmosphere. There were always more smiles, more lively conversations, and a general sense of euphoria. It was evident even on the basketball court, where broken men attempted to dribble, pass and shoot their way out of their misery. Coincidental contacts, and even the intentional blows, were more easily forgiven starting that Monday morning.

The casual observer would assume that not even the barbed wire fences and cinder block walls could keep out the spirit of old St. Nick. However, the jovial and tolerant spirit had little to do with December 25th. There were no decked-out trees, eggnog or family to make it anything more than just another day. Rather, every Christmas a mass escape would be planned. And many of the men knew that it would be the only way that they would ever leave prison. All they had to do was stay out of trouble until the “packages” arrived, usually the week before Christmas, and freedom would be theirs. Even if only temporarily. So, the shift in the atmosphere was due to the little bit of hope - a glimmer of light - that was being restored to the hearts. The “packages” would arrive, and all would be well.

Of course, the awaited packages didn’t contain any hammers, chisels or ropes. During the week following Thanksgiving, the prison passed out ordering forms for the annual holiday package. They were four or five pages of food and some clothing items that we were allowed to order only in December. After selecting what we wanted, or at least hoped to get, the ordering form was mailed home with the prayer that someone would order and pay for it. Although the prices were excessively high, families, friends, girlfriends and grandmas on fixed income would usually make the sacrifice if they could. Some guys got more than what they ordered, some less, and some got nothing at all. And there was always the group who had long been forgotten by family for one reason or another, but still mailed out a package every year to the last known address hoping against hope that their name would be on the list that would be posted in the dorm the day before packages were to be passed out. Just about everyone would rush to see if they were on it. I could always tell who the “hopers” were by the forlorn look on their faces as they walked away and made their way back to their cells. The small light having been snatched away; the darkness having returned. And, ultimately, those of us who did receive packages weren’t much better off. While being able to eat “free world” food and wear “free world” socks and underclothes allowed us to escape our reality, it was short lived. Eventually the food ran out and the “free world” underclothes began to look and feel like the coarse and dingy state issued ones. The illusion of freedom quickly faded, the light flickered then went out, and darkness would again be given free reign. We crashed back down to our dark reality. Each year, I looked somewhat enviously at the “hopers”. At least they didn’t have so far to fall and have so much taken away.

For many, the weeks following Christmas was a journey back into a world of hopelessness. Although I became more rooted in my faith during the earlier part of my incarceration, it would remain something of a challenge for me as well. After the brief distraction that the holiday packages afforded us ran its course, the realization that absolutely nothing can fill the void created when your freedom is taken away quickly set in. That was when I prayed the hardest, and, consequently, experienced the most spiritual growth. However, there were many others who weren’t guided by the light of faith that eventually became consumed by the returning darkness. The darkness within prison walls is the absence of hope, and some chose to end their lives than to live without it.

Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is program coordinator for People Living in Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department

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